Raising Compassionate Kids
Mindfulness works for children too.
Posted Feb 26, 2016
Want to reduce stress and find inner peace? Want to zen out on all the bad stuff? Who doesn’t? And who doesn’t want the same for their over-programmed, stimulation-saturated kids? Since the 1990s, mindfulness has been touted as the answer to modern woes. Mindfulness and its sister virtue, compassion, promise to turn off the toxic chatter inside our heads and bliss out our tensed up bodies. Mindful parenting, mindful teaching, meditation, and mindfulness training are all in vogue. Yet, for many of us these terms only generate a fuzzy new-age feeling. What’s the nitty-gritty of mindfulness when it comes to parenting young children? Happily, an emerging body of research on mindfulness is helping to bring clarity and suggest useful practices for adults and the children they care for.
What is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his now classic book, Wherever you go, there you are: Mindful meditation in everyday life (1994, New York: Hyperion) defined mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (p.2). This last quality—non-judgmentalness—implies an open and accepting attitude that goes beyond simply being present in the moment. This has led more recent writers on mindfulness to emphasize compassion and empathy as part of the mindfulness package. For example, a recent special issue on mindfulness in the influential journal, Developmental Psychology, defined the concept as “being attentive to and compassionate toward the fullness of life” (p.1).
Five key ingredients of mindful parenting have emerged: (1) listening with full attention; (2) non-judgmental acceptance of your child; (3) emotional awareness of your parenting and your relationship with your child; (4) self-regulation; and if that’s not enough, (5) a sense of compassion for the hard work of both parenting and growing up. All of this sounds great, but for many frazzled parents and over-worked teachers, it seems more like a description of Mother Theresa or Albert Schweitzer than a realistic goal. Yet recent studies suggest that mindful parenting is within reach. It can be practiced and taught.
An extensive literature on parenting zeroes in on “authoritative” practices. When parents (or teachers) are “authoritative,” they set clear, reasonable rules, boundaries and structures for children. At the same time, the authoritative parent is warm and accepting, ready to explain rationally why these rules exist. Taking an authoritative approach means substituting “Because I say so,” with “This is because …. [insert reasonable explanation here]. Contrast authoritative parenting with an approach that sounds similar but is oh so different—authoritarian parenting. When adults are authoritarian, they brook no dissent, enforce “their way or the highway,” and react with coldness and rejection to a child’s individuality and assertiveness. No parent can behave authoritatively all the time, yet those who mostly act in this way exemplify mindful parenting. What’s more, children growing up with authoritative parents show more empathy and sympathy toward others. These kids are better at self-regulation of their own emotions too.
So, working on setting up consistent reasonable rules and enforcing them with warmth, acceptance and a dose of humor can be practical goals for parents. It even turns out that an even simpler approach—just thinking of yourself as mindful and compassionate-- can help you act that way.
Teaching kids to be mindful: Recent research is exploring ways to directly help children to become more mindful and compassionate. A good example is a 2015 study that used randomized controlled trials – the gold standard of research—to test the impact of school-based mindfulness training for 4th and 5th graders. Once per week, over four months, one group of randomly chosen children had mindfulness “lessons.” They began with focusing on their breathing and then moved on to exercises in mindful smelling and tasting. They talked about what they were grateful for; they performed acts of kindness for each other in class; they engaged in collaborative team-building rather than individual competition. At the end of the four months, the children were assessed for changes in empathy, perspective-taking, optimism, emotional control (for example, staying calm when upset), and pro-social behaviors, such as helping others. In addition, the children were tested for “executive function.” This refers to the ability of focus attention on a learning task, avoid distraction, follow rules and react flexibly when the rules or directions change. On all these outcomes, those who had mindfulness training improved and outperformed their peers in a control group, who did not have the mindfulness training. The kids who had mindfulness training even boosted their math achievement scores above those of the other children. The researchers speculate that mindfulness training might have had beneficial spillover effects on the teachers as well, since they practiced mindful breathing at each session along with the kids.
We don’t know how long the benefits of such a “one shot” mindfulness training last. Will it lead to more long-lasting habits? The most effective components of such a program aren’t clear either. Finally, how does school-based mindfulness training affect how children behave at home? Could an intervention at school compensate for parenting that lacks “authoritative” qualities?
The science of mindful parenting is still in its infancy. A cautious conclusion might be that mindfulness actually is less mysterious than it first appears. Both parents and kids can practice the building blocks of mindfulness and develop new habits. Mindfulness surely is not a panacea for everything that ails the harried parent and the hassled child. But, it may just be what we need to take down the stress a notch or two.
Excuse me while I chant: OM.
To read further:
Duncan, L. G., Coatsworth, J. D., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). A model of mindful parenting: Implications for parent-child relations and prevention research. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 12, 255-270.
Roeser, R., & Eccles, J. (2015). Mindfulness and compassion in human development: Introduction to the special section. Developmental Psychology 51, 1-6.
Schonert-Reichl, K. A. et. al. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social-emotional development with a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. , 52-66.